Kevin Costner (‘Yellowstone’) on ‘testing the boundaries’ in Season 2 [Complete Interview Transcript]

Kevin Costner stars as John Dutton on the Paramount Network drama series “Yellowstone.” Costner is a previous Emmy winner, taking home gold for another Western series, “Hatfields and McCoys.”

Costner recently spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Rob Licuria about upping the ante for Season 2 of “Yellowstone,” being part of a longterm television series and his feelings on “Dances with Wolves” 30 years later. Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: Kevin, Season 2 sets up this epic power struggle, summed up when John says to favorite son, Kayce, “It’s the one constant in life, you build something worth having, someone’s going to try to take it.” To me, it felt like the show really upped the ante last season. How satisfying was Season 2 for you? 

Kevin Costner: Well, I think in life we’re looking to up things and when you’re speaking dramatically, that’s what you want to do and you want to try to stay within reason, you want to stay within the scope of things. You also want to kind of test the boundaries. And it has gotten wilder, if you will. The characters are actually holding pretty consistent but with really outrageous behavior. Maybe we want to vicariously live through the days where we’d like to arbitrate our own problems instead of when you feel offended, you have to call your lawyer. When your neighbor is bugging you or your wife or whatever, you feel like you would like to handle it but now you’ve got to call a lawyer or you’ve got to call an agent or you’ve got to call a PR person. I think there’s something in us that deep down, we would love to be able to sometimes have the satisfaction of arbitrating our own problems. So I think without people knowing it, they tie in a little bit to that kind of taking a level of justice, what is perceived as justice and enjoying that idea. Personally, that’s kind of what I think.

GD: I think you’re so right, because to me, it’s kind of like why people love stories about the mob or about organized crime ‘cause people take matters into their own hands and that’s something that your character, John Dutton, does because he’s continually pushed and pushed and pushed by the forces outside until the point where he breaks when his grandson is abducted and he realizes, “Okay, now I’m going to take justice into my own hands.” Is that kind of storyline satisfying as the number one on the call sheet to be playing a character who is quite complicated and his motivations are good, but the way he goes about them may be questionable?

KC: They’re really questionable. You don’t get into trouble too much unless you put the correct title on what it is you’re doing. One could argue easily that it’s murder. John argues or lives with his own conscience as somebody who’s crossed the line. He’s definitely not going into other people’s property. He’s definitely not going after other people’s children. But when it’s perceived that they’re coming after him, he hits back twice as hard.

GD: I was thinking back over your career and other than “Hatfields & McCoys” a few years ago, this is your first longterm role on television. And a lot of people have already really asked you about this but I’m curious why this particular project appealed to you and you decided to move onto something a bit more longterm and on television.

KC: Yeah, honestly, it wasn’t supposed to be a series when I was first approached with it. It was going to be 10 episodes, it was going to finish there. It was going to have its story arc and that’s how it was presented to me. And then halfway through, it switched to something else. And I had a moment where I could have legitimately jumped off and said, “Wait a second, that’s not what we’ve been talking about.” But I elected for my own reasons not to do that, and so dealing with the situation, the show has been wonderfully received, but I’m dealing with it in a way that was not anticipated, to be perfectly honest.

GD: Fair enough. There’s a lot of things I love about the show. I think it looks and sounds incredible, but I really admire how the show doesn’t glamorize the modern West. It challenges our traditional ideas on what the great Wild West looks like these days. It’s violent. It’s corrupt. It’s lawless. What are your thoughts on how the show is rooted in reality and what’s going on in this part of America that many of us are not really aware of?

KC: Yeah, the realities are this kind of work is being done every day, people on horseback, harvesting, watching cattle, moving things around. That’s really part of the American psyche is the cowboy and that hasn’t really left so many areas in the United States. It’s still done every day. Obviously, when you create a melodrama, you have to have things that are very heightened. But when you do that well, and I think Taylor [Sheridan] does that really well in his writing, he really heightens situations, and the dialogue is sharp and clever and you put that against the imagery that we somehow lost contact with, that these places still exist. These mountains are not going anywhere and they’re so beautiful and this land is worth fighting for. It plays with people, running rivers, running horses, freedom, defend what’s yours. That’s playing into a certain psyche for sure.

GD: Yeah. Do you get a lot of feedback about how it plays into a certain psyche? I was reading the other day that this show would appeal to right-wing voters and if anyone knows you and knows your background, that’s a complete antithesis of who you are personally. But are you aware of how this show plays to that Americana? 

KC: Yeah, I’m not naive about that. I understand that that’s the direction the show’s going and I’m doing my level best to play this fictional character.

GD: I mean, Taylor Sheridan is an incredible writer and his wheelhouse is absolutely the modern Western given what he’s done previously. What would you say his strengths are as a writer and creator now that you’ve worked with him?

KC: I think he’s a wordsmith, and they have a lot of heart and there’s a lot of humor that can come out of it. There’s a shock value to a lot of it. He’s saying things subconsciously that a lot of people would like to say. He creates worthy opponents so that there’s not one person smarter than the rest and everybody else is dumb and become conveniences to knock down. I think he’s created a nice chess game going back and forth between the people and he loves that world. I embrace the outdoors in the exact same way.

GD: One of the highlights of the show is the portrayal of a dysfunctional family like the Duttons and how surprisingly relatable it can be because every family has its ups and downs but ultimately they will do anything for each other against a common enemy, at any cost of consequence. How do you feel about how universal that theme is which kind of goes throughout the whole show?

KC: That’s a recipe for disaster when everybody’s willing to follow somebody who’s acting immorally because they’re family. We’re raised to support and be loyal but we’re also raised to think for ourself and when we see injustice, we confront it anywhere we find it. Once or twice, you can side with your family over certain issues. But if they cross a line, I don’t think that’s the best measure of a family that one will tolerate something that is beyond the pale. I mean, you can continue to love them and support them, but you don’t have to become that to the degree that you can support it.

GD: And yet, time and time again on this show, people fall into line behind John and the war that he’s waging. I was really taken aback by midway through the season when the relationship between John and Jamie really starts to become a bit more explained. We see the flashbacks and then, Jamie murders that journalist. John doesn’t support him and he only intervenes later when he’s going to stop his son from shooting himself. There was a lot there to unpack. And I was wondering, when you first received those scripts, what were your thoughts on how you were going to tackle that really complicated relationship between father and son. 

KC: That complication, that relationship is inside the writer’s head, the creator and I’ve had to deal with those realities as they come at me. And yeah, that relationship is an uncomfortable one. It’s a very mixed bag for me. But this is play-acting and this is the direction they want to go. So I find the best way I can play it. I’ve tried to go along with the vision of where they want to go with it. There’s moments I’ll maybe suggest something else. But at the end of the day, I know what you’re talking about and I’m not surprised because I talked about the very same thing.

GD: Yeah. It’s incredibly powerful. I mean, the psychology between the two of them really resonated with me. And then to see the difference in how John treats these other kids he’s adopted. 

KC: When you treat somebody some way, you want to understand some of the facts behind it. It’s like, if you say something onscreen, you can’t trust him, you have to go be able to look backward to see where that occurred. You know what I’m saying? It doesn’t mean some things can’t be a mystery. But I think they’re going to try to cinch those things up. They’re going to try to tighten that up. It won’t make it less uncomfortable or powerful in certain ways, depending on what you think you’re watching. Whenever you raise a hand to a child, a solid fist, we all understand that. And for somebody like yourself, I don’t think you’re wrong to feel that at all. My god. What is that about? That just being an animal. So does it fly under the cover of being out there and being a rancher? I don’t know. But I’m trying to do it in an unflinching way.

GD: Yeah, and it really works. And speaking of that, the finale was pretty explosive. It was when the Becks and the Duttons go to war, literally. The highlight scene for me is between you and Neal McDonough as he’s bleeding out. Obviously, that’s the crescendo to a really great episode. What was that like for you to feel in that scene with Neal? He’s a great actor and you both, I think, pulled it off beautifully. 

KC: Well, I’ve never seen it because I haven’t watched it. I purposefully don’t. I work really hard on it. The writing was very good at that moment right there between those two. It was really powerful, what I read. So I don’t want to look back at it and know that anything was taken out. I just don’t want it because I felt it was really powerful, too. If I would look at it now and it seemed like it was 70 percent of what it was, I’ll feel bad. So what I did, I poured myself into what it was. And I believed in every word I was saying, and a lot of it needed to be said. Neal was a great scene partner. This is the first time we worked together. We worked together in “The Guardian,” and he’s really a wonderful actor. So yeah, I poured everything, whatever trick in the book I could create as an actor to make it seem real to who’s ever watching at that moment. That’s what I did.

GD: Yeah, it was unflinching and it was typically for John as you play him, he’s pretty restrained most of the time but in that moment where all he really wants is to get his grandson back, it actually was really riveting. So, yeah, I just thought I’d share that. So has anything ever shocked you on this show when picking up and reading and a new script and it’s kind of taking a while to figure out how you’re going to bring it to life? 

KC: Yeah, that happens. That happens, actually, in almost all scripts. It has to be well written ‘cause if it shocks me it’s bad, that’s a problem. But I think in most of the movies there’s something I have in common where I read two or three scenes and I go, “Ooh, those are gonna be difficult days.” And I really think I’m the right guy to say those lines. But I have to find a way to take what looks maybe uncomfortable and I have got to blend this for an audience and do it in a way that’s not winking at them but I’m just committed to what it is. So I’ve seen a lot of those scenes, I think, “Wow,” and I’ve been pleasantly surprised with a lot of set pieces. Been really nice. Really, really nice.

GD: It’s interesting. We’re kind of running out of time but I wanted to talk to you briefly about 30 years ago when you won Best Director and Best Picture for “Dances with Wolves.” It was one of the greatest years in film back then. I remember it very clearly and it was a memorable moment in film history because it was the emergence of the modern Western and depiction of Native Americans in mainstream cinema. It was one of the most important ones. Your speech was so great because you rattled off people that will never forget how “Dances with Wolves” won Best Picture and you said how it will always be important to you. And I was wondering 30 years later, how do you feel about it now? Do you still feel the same way? 

KC: Feel in what way? That it was important to me?

GD: Yeah. 

KC: Well, it was important to me, because I wasn’t going with the flow when I made that picture. In fact, everything was rooting against it. Unbeknownst to me, there was a big kind of movement back in Hollywood before anybody had ever seen the movie calling it “Heaven’s Gate,” which is code for something that’s running over, something that’s going wrong. And I was out there with my own money. It was a movie that no one really wanted to make and I was passing on a movie, “Hunt for Red October,” where I could have made the biggest payday of my life. But I had given my word that I would go make that movie. I had already postponed it once because I couldn’t solve the ending from a writing standpoint and I elected to not go out there without knowing exactly how I wanted to end it, as opposed to going out there and just making it up on the fly. As it so happened in my mind, that year waiting, I actually feel like I became better prepared to actually go out the following year. So a lot of times you want something right now. But I think in hindsight, one of the best things that happened to me was waiting another year didn’t hurt at all.

It was important to me because I believe in writing. So when I see writing, that’s the direction my career has to go. Not towards movies that are trending. “I got to get myself in a movie like that. I got to get myself in a movie like this.” The audience is just waiting for fresh air, for something special, and it could be different. It could be something old, familiar, but done in a very interesting classic way that no one even recognizes that there’s a formula inside it, because all the setups have a very original way of going about themselves. They come at it from a different angle. So you don’t see the quote-unquote formula taking place. If you take a romantic comedy, the couple hates each other by first base, hate each other, can’t stand each other. By the time we get to second base, you’ve got to find that one scene where they still hate each other but somebody did something that was interesting. “Even though I still don’t like them, that was interesting.” Then, between second and third base, they’re starting to look at each other a little bit differently and the one isn’t sure why the other one’s looking at them. They think they still hate each other. And then you get to that third base and you start to see them fall in love. In the romantic comedy, there is that formula. Those beats have to somehow happen to get to our end. In a lot of whodunit movies, there’s a formula, blah, blah, blah. So, I almost forget what my point was taking you through that exercise. Where was I headed? I was headed toward something.

GD: Ultimately, that movie. I mean, it was important for a reason. 

KC: Yeah, I was saying I wasn’t trying to repeat anything. I wasn’t trying to get in a genre that was a certain winner. I believe in the writing and the audience’s ability to take that ride, whatever age they are. There’s always, “The young generation won’t look at this kind of movie and the older one doesn’t want to…” I don’t think that’s right. I think that young people are dying for something that’s compelling. If you don’t make it compelling, they won’t respond.  The Western can be kind of boring to somebody. But if you make the right kind of Western, they’re unforgettable because you’ve really orchestrated dramatic moments that force somebody watching to go, “I’m not sure I would have known what to do.” But if you make a Western that’s just a black hat, white hat, those are too simple. And that’s why so many Westerns are bad. They’re just simple. And the truth is, back then, it was complicated. It was complicated. Yeah, simpler time, we didn’t have telephones, we didn’t have blah, blah, blah. But to think that people weren’t forced in life and death situations, that’s complicated. And to live a decent life, that’s complicated to do. And if you can create those situations, I’m convinced that anybody that’s 12 and older is going to go, “I love what I just saw. I get that completely.” So I believe in an audience and I put them on my shoulder every time I decide to do something.

GD: That’s fascinating to me. And speaking of, my final question, to keep it light, when I was mentioning to my family the other day what I’m doing in my work, I happened to mention I’m going to interview Kevin Costner and each single person at the table had a different film or TV show. I couldn’t believe it. It was so funny. One guy said, “I loved him in ‘The Untouchables.’” My mom said, “‘Field of Dreams’ is my favorite movie.” My dad said, “I loved ‘JFK.’” My sister said “The Bodyguard” is the best one. I said he won an Emmy for “Hatfields & McCoys.” What do you find that is most common when people come to talk to you in public? What do they most want to talk to you about? 

KC: That’s what the joy was about “Dances with Wolves” is it confirmed that it’s just the movie and each movie you make has a chance to be something that someone won’t ever forget. And if you realize that a movie’s value is not on its opening weekend, how much it makes, its value is in 10 years, is somebody willing to share it? 20 years? 30 years? And so what I do is I value that audience experience and the greatest joy I have is that my career hasn’t boiled down to one movie that I don’t know, between one and 14 movies, someone might say that’s their favorite movie. “I love ‘Waterworld.’” “I love ‘A Perfect World.’” “I love ‘Mr. Brooks.’” I don’t know what’s coming out of their mouth. “I love ‘Fandango.’” You’re never sure. And for me, I would hate to think that my life has been about a single movie. And so, I think your family and they should know long before they ever saw the movie, I wanted people to feel that way, that this was their favorite movie.

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